Times, Seasons, Astrologers, and We

I have confessed to some of you my growing interest in a collection of interrelated ideas that have born various titles over the centuries. Where they were once considered sophisticated and respectable philosophy, they are now generally termed “hermetic” or “metaphysical” or “esoteric.” When I first began to read them in the hopes of better contextualizing my work on the history of earliest Mormonism, I mostly chuckled in my sleeve. As I have spent more time with their texts and ideas, I think I have come to understand some of the impulses motivating their ideologies.

One of the principles of these philosophies that I find most interesting–as a Mormon, a cultural historian, and an intellectual dilettante–is what is called correspondence (or the law of correspondence, or metaphysical correspondence). In its most basic form, correspondence maintains that similarities between the human and cosmic planes of existence are both meaningful and powerful. In terms favored by learned adherents, the “microcosm” (representing human life or the human body) parallels the “macrocosm” (representing the galaxy or universe), and microcosm and macrocosm influence each other.

Emanuel Swedenborg, the best-known preacher of correspondence in modern (i.e. 18th century) Europe, presented a particularly extreme version. According to Swedenborg, the universe is configured in the form a giant human, the Maximus Homo. Some planetary systems are located at the universe’s spleen or colon, while others are its head or components of its brain. It was this parallel between the human body and the cosmos, so difficult for us to understand now, that allowed Swedenborg to traverse the entire universe over the course of his mystical career. His body contained the universe in some important way.

While Swedenborg’s is a striking system, the much more familiar zodiacal body exhibits the same fundamental impulse. For regular Americans up through the beginning of the nineteenth-century, it was common to see the zodiac configured in the shape of a human body. Human bodies, human fates, made a certain kind of sense within an organized universe. In the zodiac, we see some of the clues as to why correspondence would be such a powerful explanatory system.

In 1835, John Fellows, an idiosyncratic autodidact with a penchant for long titles, wrote a hefty tome entitled An Exposition of the Mysteries; or Religious Dogmas and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, Pythagoreans, and Druids. Also: an Inquiry into the Origin, History, and Purport of Freemasonry. In this book he provided an annotated translation of Abbe Pluche’s History of the Heavens and his own attempts to tie American Freemasonry into ancient philosophical traditions. Pluche and Fellows wax positively rhapsodic about Egyptian astrology and its integration into the cyclic flooding of the Nile. In their characterization of the seasons of fertility and destruction along the Nile, we get a glimpse of the power of the stars.

It wasn’t until I had moved back to the West as an adult and begun to cultivate a garden that I could understand viscerally or intuitively what they meant. According to the Pluche/Fellows account (and neither is an original thinker by any stretch), the ancient Egyptians watched carefully to understand when the Nile would flood, wreaking momentary destruction en route to the replenishment of the fertile riparian soil on which they relied for their livelihoods. Few of us know starvation (thank heavens), but if the seasonal cycles failed to operate in their expected course for our ancestors, there stood the very real possibility of death from starvation. Who among us would not have been a careful student of the stars if they provided direction as to the timing of the Nile floods and the possibility of a plentiful harvest? Given that weather is in part determined by the alignment of planets and stars (e.g. the axial declination of the earth in its orbital plane around the sun and its rotation about the sun, which affect both total sunlight AND the appearance of the night sky), there is reason to believe that such important information could indeed derive from celestial bodies.

Closer to modern times the almanac still attempts to describe and predict the effects that celestial bodies will have on human lives, though we are increasingly isolated from those effects (or imagine that we are) by the complex networks of industrial nutrition. With our garden and my wife’s considered and enthusiastic commitment to the cycles of the natural world, I feel myself drawn to harmonize with those cycles, to eat (as my wife argues in a forthcoming essay) according to the seasonality enjoined by the Word of Wisdom, to feel my life change as the weather does. The now mostly infantilized word horoscope itself points to the marking and passage of time, an inspection of the “hours” of our lives and the life of the cosmos. I am no judicial astrologer (those who believe that our personal fates are determined by cosmic alignments), but I am a grateful viewer of the celestial bodies and participant in the rhythms they impose on earthly life.

So when I read Joseph Smith’s sermons comparing celestial to human bodies, when I read that the earth itself, once purged of the resurrected dead, will become a Urim and Thummim, a luminous orb in a chain of such orbs connecting humanity and the marvelously physical contexts for their mortal lives, I remember the tiny sprouts of our beets in June and the wondrous, succulent roots that they become (baked for 60-90min in tinfoil at 350F) by early September. I feel gratitude for the snowstorms that replenish the waters of the Wasatch and its human populations. I marvel at the spring appearance of a cow moose and her calf, and the strange miracle of bears sleeping for months in a state of suspended animation. And when I watch the stars in the perfectly black nights of the Uinta mountains, I remember Joseph Smith staring into the same space, according to his autobiography, and espying the love of God.

Comments

  1. Wonderful essay, Sam. And I look forward to Kate’s essay. That said, beets are evil.

  2. Very cool post.

  3. One thing this post describes well is a kind of moment of self-recognition that I love to experience: the discovery that something I once considered general to all humans is revealed as a folkway of my culture.

    It goes the other, as well, for finding what is true of all humanity is ever delightful.

    Great post, Sam.

  4. I love these posts Sam. And I look forward to Kate’s essay.

    One of the things I love best about Mormonism is the embracing of things occasionally considered gnostic by mainstream Christianity. You tapped this fact in a sweet and lovely way with this post. Thank you.

  5. “idiosyncratic autodidact” Yeah! Hate beets too.

  6. You beet-haters have some serious problems.

  7. Sam this was wonderful. We’ve lost so much of our ability to attune ourselves to the natural rhythms of the earth. We control the seasons in our houses, we have lost the stars in our sea of light and opacity of our structures, we eat from food grown on global rather than local cycles. In the middle of the greatest ecological crisis since the end of the Cretaceous, we don’t even notice because we are so separated from nature. What I like about the “As above, so below,” view is the idea that we are connected to bigger and smaller things in ways that matter. Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

  8. Cynthia L. says:

    I haven’t figured out yet if this actually relates…

    But for me this essay strongly recalled one Spring while I was in great despair over struggles with infertility. I got all my tomato seeds planted on the appointed day (Valentine’s Day, when you’re here in San Diego), just like I do every year. I was kind of going through the motions of life and that’s what I do in early Spring, so I did it. But when those tiny little seed leaves pierced the surface of the soil that year, it was a revelation. I was so focused on what wasn’t working and what wasn’t reproducing new life that I must have thought the whole universe had ceased its ability to regenerate and reproduce. It was very reassuring to know that, whatever my personal struggles, the cosmic motion continued. All was not lost. Not everything I touched became sterile by the sheer force of my brokenness.

  9. I am a grateful viewer of the celestial bodies and participant in the rhythms they impose on earthly life.

    Me too. I just spent a lovely evening with my telescope. By the end, I could see the Pleiades and I knew that Tarus and Orion would be right behind them. Winter is coming.

  10. Interesting post. Modernity itself is almost a celebration of man’s ability to buck nature’s ebbs and flows. We ship fresh fruit between the hemispheres, turn night into day in our stadiums, create artificial snow for our ski slopes, and maintain constant water supplies from our reservoirs. It’s not just that we’ve lost the ability to follow nature’s rhythms, it’s more that we reject them and seek to overcome them whenever possible.

  11. Astrology Consultant says:

    Nice post. this post help me very much…..

  12. the wondrous, succulent roots that they become (baked for 60-90min in tinfoil at 350F)

    Completely agree with you on the beets. I love them baked with balsamic vinegar as well, or better yet, through that tinfoil filled with beets and balsamic vinegar on the BBQ or into a campfire.

    Also, great post — many thanks for these contemplations.

  13. er, throw the tinfoil into the fire.

  14. re # 8 — wow Cynthia, thanks.

  15. #12. also love a little Gorgonzola on them.
    #8. thanks for sharing such a touching and appropriate story.

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